Sunday, 11 March 2012

Can Marine le Pen Feminise the Front National?

Marine le Pen is the candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party in the presidential elections.  She follows in the footsteps of her father, Jean-Marie le Pen, who contested every previous presidential election for the party and succeeded in qualifying to the second round of voting in 2002.  Marine has succeeded in providing a new image for the party – one that is younger and more modern.  Of interest here is whether she has also succeeded in feminising the party.  The traditional FN electorate comprises two men for every woman.  If she wants to repeat her father’s success from 2002, she will need to bring more women voters on board.  The ideal time to do this was 8 March, International Women’s Day, when all French candidates were invited to take a stance on women’s issues.  The positions that she took were fascinating.
Interviewed on mainstream television channel France 2 (, she began by explaining why there is nothing on women’s rights in the FN manifesto.  She claimed that the laws needed to achieve equality are already in place, but the problem is that there is a lack of political commitment to ensuring that they are implemented.  She then suggested that perhaps a woman would be more committed to enforcing these laws.  Are we to understand, then, that she would be the feminist saviour of France?  Much research on this topic has indicated that women may be more committed to the defence of women’s issues than men.  However, women’s bodies do not always house feminist minds, and partisanship and ideology may be better predictors than sex of whether a politician will defend feminist positions.  The traditionalist far-right ideology of the FN suggests that le Pen is unlikely to be an effective advocate of women’s rights – but that certainly didn’t stop her from trying to present herself in a positive light to women voters.
She defended the FN’s support for a “parental salary”, destined to offer 80% of the minimum wage to mothers who choose to stay at home with their children.  A key give-away for the observant feminist was that, despite the gender-neutral term “parental salary”, she referred always to giving women the choice of whether or not to be full-time mothers.  For those women who do prefer to stay at home, this should be a financially viable option, she argued.  This stance would be fine if it were truly gender-neutral and afforded the same option to fathers, although the gender pay gap in France would make a “salary” of below the minimum wage an unattractive prospect for most men.  Her discourse, however, did nothing to contest the notion that childcare was a woman’s responsibility.
She emphasised that the parental salary was proposed as a “choice”, not an obligation for women to abandon the working world and stay at home.  She claimed that women who wanted to work should be able to do so, but were currently prevented from doing so due to inadequate provision of crèches (cue a dig at Sarkozy for failing to introduce 75% of the nursery places he had promised in 2007).  She introduced a new policy of promoting increased nursery provision, declaring herself to be “la présidente des crèches” in a direct appeal to women voters.  In this way, she sought to distance the long-standing policy of a maternal salary from the paternalist discourse with which it had previously been associated.
So how does le Pen propose to finance all these nursery places?  In a swift return to the more traditional discourse of the far-right, she attacked the state’s willingness to support group interests [which are seen as a threat to the collective national identity], citing the 500,000 euros awarded per year to anti-racism group SOS Racisme as an example of something that could be cut.  Once again, feminism à la française is presented as something that belongs only to French white women.  However, 500,000 euros is nowhere near sufficient to cover the costs of her childcare proposals.  In the same interview, she declared that there was a shortage of 500,000 nursery places, and it is clear that 1 euro per child per year is not going to cut it.  Where will the rest of the money come from?  Why, from reducing spending on abortion, of course.  This may have the side-effect of increasing the number of children in need of care, but the presenter did not query the rather dubious mathematics behind the costings.  (After all, this is the same party that has previously claimed that “3 million unemployed French = 3 million too many immigrants”, and le Pen has recently claimed that nearly all meat sold in the Paris region is halal.  Economic accuracy has never been the FN’s forté.)  Le Pen was clear that she was not opposed to all abortion.  France is not the US; even the far-right do not oppose abortion with the religious fervour seen in America.  Rather, she claimed that some women were abusing the system by using abortion as a casual method of contraception, and it was these cases that should no longer be reimbursed.  As ever, she was clever in spinning the story in a way that did not sound like an attack on women.  She pointed out that doctors were refusing to carry out abortions due to exasperation with these irresponsible women, leading to a shortage of availability for women in distress who really needed access to abortion. So she is not anti-abortion, she simply wants to restrict it to “deserving” cases.
As with the parental salary, she managed to make a paternalist discourse on abortion sound more respectable.  Without a doubt, this is partly because she herself is a woman, but her skill should not be underestimated either.  Cleverly phrased soundbites have succeeded in dressing up quite regressive policies to make them sound almost progressive.  When it was put to her that her policies would force women back into the home, she claimed this was absurd, saying “not me, not I who have worked all my life...I want to give women a choice”.  She made an indirect appeal to women voters by claiming that women only get involved when the most important things are at stake, and that in this election, the most important things are indeed at stake. Whether this will motivate women voters to support her is unclear, but recent data gathered by the Laboratoire de l’Egalité suggests that at least some women see le Pen as a good advocate of women’s rights.
What can we learn from all this?  However skilful le Pen might be in presenting her policies in a positive light, more careful analysis indicates that the FN is not in a strong position to defend women’s rights.  The assumption that a woman candidate will be the best defender of women’s interests is erroneous.  However, the ability of a woman candidate to appeal to the female electoral market is an interesting prospect, especially for a party such as the FN that has traditionally performed poorly in this area.  Marine le Pen might not be the ideal ambassador for women – but she is proving to be a real asset for her party.

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